- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

Books come first in March.

Billy Packer comes second.

You are encouraged not to examine the high-dollar action with a critical eye. Nobody likes a party pooper, most of all the suits who live incredibly well because of the system.

The indentured servants, some of whom know what a term paper is, play awfully hard on both ends of the floor, all 94 feet, and all because of the genius in a suit. He does a great job, as it is said. Great is the obligatory adjective, rendered meaningless in short order.

No one necessarily believes in the business wing of the NCAA and many of the universities that major in football and basketball. But you can't beat the product, particularly in March, when the calendar is stuffed with two-hour dramas and the sense that something important is being decided.

The condition of the system was determined to be terminal a long time ago. A zero graduation rate is merely a symptom of the upside-down series of priorities.

Nolan Richardson set the tone this month by talking himself out of a job at the University of Arkansas. Richardson was no more lost than university officials and the critics stuck on the team's 13-14 record. Fortunately, America was able to hold up in the wake of the developments.

There's no "i" in team, of course, except among the coaches held hostage by won-lost records and the whims of dreamy-eyed recruits. Even telemarketers have it better than that. They have to beg adults instead of teens.

Richardson's zero graduation rate barely merited a mention, mostly because it really wasn't news. As Richardson pointed out, the NBA came first with his players. What more do you want from him? He was college basketball's Coach of the Year in 1994.

Some schools do it almost right. Some don't bother to try. Still others are caught in the mid-major conferences. Believe in who you want. Figure skating provided a preparatory course.

The Ivy League is exempt, the same almost as the Patriot League. High-minded is the condescending code word attached to both, usually on the back pages of the sports section.

The obsession with performance is distorted, fanned in part by the shouters in the print and electronic media, this space included, and the riches that beckon.

The epiphany following September 11 was short-lived in the sports culture, judging by the frothing-at-the-mouth reaction to Gonzaga being seeded sixth in the West Region. It was a travesty of justice, as one overwrought talking head put it. That must make O.J. Simpson a double travesty of justice, although he remains forever committed to the search for the real killers.

America accepts a certain amount of excess from its entertainers, even the unpaid entertainers of March. Strike the unpaid part. They have earned athletic scholarships, the first response of the guilty.

Class is fitted around the games, practices, weightlifting, film sessions, travel obligations, team meals, team meetings and team-bonding exercises. There is preseason practice, postseason practice and USA Basketball and league play in the summer. Class, in this context, becomes almost a distraction.

Tickets, anyone? Need two. That's another distraction to players and coaches alike. In this mixed-up environment, interest in a coming attraction is a negative.

No one objects too strenuously to the misrepresentations until the waste matter rises to the surface. Then a good dose of outrage is mandatory. What, you mean the player who takes it one you know at a time has not been attending badminton class? This is shocking, just shocking.

Luckily, the Division I basketball numbers are statistically insignificant in a nation of 283 million, roughly 4,000 players on 327 teams. Their loss hardly resonates. The next Bill Gates already is out there, laboring beyond the overdone cheers.

In the end, as always, books come first, because it is about the kids. It is always about them.

Kids, by the way, is their term. It goes with the subjugation.

Meanwhile, kids the same age are off in another part of the world protecting our fannies.

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